Tag Archives: Issue 35

Second Cousins, fiction by Lou-Ellen Barkan

“I think it’s disgraceful,” my mother said.

            “I agree,” my father said. “Pass the bread, please.”

            “What’s disgraceful?” I asked, walking into the dining room and dropping my book bag on the floor.

            “Maybe that you’re half an hour late for dinner.” My mother pointed to my chair. “Sit down, please.”

            “What’s disgraceful?” I stared suspiciously at my bright red beet salad. I hated beets and had successfully avoided eating them for years. The trick was to push them under the lettuce leaves and hope nobody noticed.  

            “Nothing.” My father gave my mother the look. The one that said not in front of the children. “Nothing is disgraceful.”

            “Nicht vor den Kindern,” my grandmother reinforced his message with her favorite phrase. “Not in front of the children.” Now I really was curious.

            “They’re talking about the Barons.” My younger brother, Willy, looked up, his mouth bright red from beets. “Patty ran away with her boyfriend. He’s not Jewish, so her parents are having a funeral to pretend she’s dead.”

            “You’re kidding,” I said. “Pretend she’s dead? What’s that?”

            “Enough.” My father tapped on the table with his fork.

            “Well, since they know so much,” my mother stood up and cleared the salad plates, “I think they deserve the whole story.” She looked down at my plate. “You didn’t eat your salad.”

            “Beets.” I shook my head. “I hate them.”

            “Children are…,” my grandmother said.

            “Starving in Europe.” Willy finished her sentence. “We know.”

            “Well, you can send them my beets,” I said. “So, you going to tell us about the Baron business?”

            My father pulled a roll from the breadbasket. “The Barons are religious. They believe if you marry someone who’s not Jewish, you’re dead. So, they sit Shiva.”

            “Shiva?” I asked. “Like when someone really dies? You kidding me? Jews do that?”

            “Oy,” my grandmother sighed, standing up and straightening her blue housedress. “Yes. Yes, they do that.” She shook her head and followed my mother into the kitchen.

            “They do the whole mourning thing? Sitting on boxes? Wearing black? Prayers?”

            “That’s right,” my father said. “The whole megillah.”

            “And after the ceremony, she’s dead to them?” I looked at my father. “Would you do that?” I started to worry. I had a crush on Johnny Zuckarelli. He was definitely not Jewish.

            “Of course not,” my father said, watching my mother carrying a covered platter to the table.

            I stopped talking and started to worry about the food. Sometimes on beet night, my grandmother made beef tongue or boiled beef or lamb shanks. On those nights, I managed to skip the meal and grab crackers and cheese after everyone had gone to bed. But tonight, I was starving and if the dinner was going to be weird stuff, it was going to be a long hungry night.    

            “So, her parents kick her out of the house, sit shiva, and then carry on like nothing happened?” I asked. “Even if she’s alive and living in the same town. How’s that work?”

            “Well, it’s definitely awkward.” My father said, taking the cover off the platter. “But it’s what they believe, so it’s their business.”

            I tried not to smile. Chicken. Rice and peas. My favorites. I passed my plate.

            “Oh, come on, Joe.” My mother added extra rice to my serving. “Do you really believe that once Patty’s pregnant, they won’t come running to see their grandchild? Shiva or no shiva.”

            “Pregnant?” Willy picked up his head. “She’s pregnant? She’s having a baby?”

            “I have no idea,” my mother said. “I’m just making a point. And it is our business. Her mother is my first cousin. And we’re not living in the shtetel. They’re making all the Jewish families look ridiculous.”

            “Who’s your cousin?” I looked up.

            “Patty’s mother, Marge Baron.” My mother sat down to her place at the table and put a napkin on her lap. “That makes Patty your second cousin.”

            “What’s a second cousin?” Willy asked.

            “It’s complicated,” my mother said. “Eat your peas.”

            This was new information and had potential. Patty Baron was the most popular girl in school. Being related could add meaningful points to my status. Maybe Johnny would notice.

            “So, how come I didn’t know I was related to Patty Baron?” I asked. “How is she my second cousin.”

            “Her mother and I had the same grandmother.”

            My grandmother nodded. “Margie Baron’s mother was my sister. She was a nasty piece of work.” 

            “Mom, please,” my mother said. “It’s not a big deal. Margie Baron and I are first cousins, so Patty is your second cousin.”

            “So how come we never see them?

            “We had a falling out,” my father said. “And no, I’m not going to explain. Eat your dinner, please.”

            “If I marry a person who’s not Jewish, you don’t have to sit shiva for me?” I asked.

            My father shook his head. “No, we might be disappointed. But we would not sit shiva. Is there any salt?”

            “No salt, Joe. The doctor said to reduce your salt.” My mother put down her fork and looked at me. “I’ll tell you what I think. Better you should marry a lapsed Catholic than an Orthodox Jew.”

            “Marilyn,” my grandmother shook her head.  “What? She’s fourteen. You need to give her ideas?”

            “She’s smart enough to understand.” My mother put down her fork and looked at me. “We’re not living in Europe. This is America. It’s 1961. What, we didn’t suffer enough? So, you marry a nice boy from a good family. Who cares what they do on Sunday. Not me.”

            Maybe Johnny and I had a future after all.

            The next morning, I missed the school bus and walked the mile and half to school. It was drizzling lightly, so I arrived damp and annoyed that my carefully organized outfit was wrinkled, and my hair was lying flat without any of the curl I tried to achieve sleeping all night on heavy mesh rollers. My plan was to pick up a late pass, stop in the girls’ bathroom and organize my hair before I went to class.

            The hallways were empty when I arrived. I got my pass and headed to the girls’ bathroom. The door squeaked as I walked in, and the five girls huddled in front of the window turned to see who had arrived.  I recognized the most popular girls in school, all seniors, including Patty, my new cousin. Instead of combing my hair, I headed to the closest stall, closed the door and sat down to listen.

            “My God,” Maria said. “Where will you live?”

            “He gave you a cigar band?” I recognized Marsha’s nasal whine. “You ever getting a real diamond?”

            “He promised. As soon as we’re married.” This had to be Patty.

            “Ooooh!” Barbara was a squealer. “A wedding. What are you going to wear?”

            “A wedding dress, dummy,” Patty said.  

            “I guess it won’t be white.” This was Maggie, dripping sarcasm. She could afford to be mean, her parents were almost as rich as Patty’s.

            Sudden silence as the door opened and I heard the high-pitched voice of Mrs. Neilson, our English teacher.

            “Girls,” she said. “Can I assume you are planning to come back to class?”

            There was a flurry of “Yes, Mrs. Neilson,” and the sound of the crowd traipsing through the bathroom, the door opening and shutting. As soon as it was quiet, I opened the stall door and went to the mirror to comb my hair.  Behind me, in the reflection, I saw the door open.  Patty walked into the bathroom and stood with her back to me in front of the window. I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her crying.

            “You okay?” I asked.

            “Why wouldn’t I be?” She turned to me, a river of tears rolling down her cheeks accompanied by a trail of black mascara.

            “Well, for starters,” I said, handing her a tissue. “You’re crying.”

            “Allergies,” she sniffled.

            I raised my eyebrows. “I know what’s going on.”

            “What? What do you know?”

            “My parents told me,” I said. “Apparently we’re cousins? I know the whole story.”

            She started to retch.

            “Sit down,” I pulled a chair from under the window. “Stay here. I’ll get someone.”

            “No,” she whispered, wiping her eyes. “I’m fine. I’m going to get married.”

            “I heard,” I said, “You’re marrying your boyfriend.”

            “My parents won’t take my calls,” she held her hand out for another tissue. “I had to stay at Nick’s house last night. Everyone speaks Italian. My father called and threatened to kill Nick. Then his father threatened to kill my father.” She stopped crying and blew her nose. “How are you my cousin?”

            “Second cousin.” I had done some research before I went to bed. “Same gene pool.” 

            “What are you anyway?” She looked down at me. “Twelve?”

            “Fourteen,” I said. “Just short.” I was seriously late for class, but I had one last question. “Are you pregnant?”

            “What? Who told you that?”

            “No one. I’m guessing. Hormones?”

            “How old did you say you were?”

            “Fourteen. I have my period. You are pregnant, aren’t you?

            “I have to get to class.” She said, wiping her face with a wet paper towel. “You say nothing about this. Swear on your mother’s grave. We’re cousins, right? You go out first.”

            “No worries.” I patted my hair down and headed out the door, leaving Cousin Patty sitting in front of the window.

            Mom was waiting in the car when school let out. It was weekly library day. Even though we argued about a lot of things, books and movies were two things we both loved. When we talked about our favorites, we laughed and cried together, analyzing scenes and comparing opinions. Best of all, unlike my friends’ mothers, mom let me pick and choose whatever I wanted to read or see. Nothing was off the table. So, in addition to Little Women and Gone with the Wind, I was the only kid in my class who had read Peyton Place and seen Bridget Bardot in action. Mom and I agreed they were both overrated.

            “How was your day?” Mom asked.


            “Run into Patty?”

            “She’s not in any of my classes.” I figured this wasn’t exactly a lie.

            “I thought she might be in your Honors English?”

            “Not this semester. We going to the library?”

            “No, you didn’t see her? Or no, she’s not in your classes?”

            “You going to start the car?”

            “Answer my question, please.”

            There was no upside in trying to keep a secret from my mother. Her instincts had a one hundred percent success rate.

            “Fine,” I said. “I did see Patty. In the bathroom. She was crying.”

            “What did she say?”

            “All the parents are fighting. Her parents won’t take her calls. No one speaks English in Nick’s house. I think she’s pregnant. Are we going to the library?”

            “What?” Mom turned to face me. “Are you sure? Did she say that?”

            “Not exactly. It’s hot in here. If we’re not going anywhere, can you at least roll the window down?”

            “Not exactly? What does that mean?”

            I was torn. Tell mom the whole story or keep Patty’s secret? I was reading Catcher in the Rye. What would Holden do?  I decided to give it all up and wait for Mom’s reaction, which as it turned out, was totally predictable.

            “My God.” She shook her head. “She’s pregnant and they won’t talk to her? What kind of people are they?”

            This was going to be one of those conversations that mom liked to have with herself. The kind where she had both the questions and the answers. It paid to keep quiet while she figured things out.

            “I’ll tell you what kind of people,” she continued. “Idiots. Idiots who think the family is going to forgive them for abandoning their kid when she needs them most. And what are we going to do about that?”

            I waited for the answer.

            “Well, I’ll tell you what we are going to do about that.” She slammed her fist down on the steering wheel. “We are going over to see that stupid cousin of mine and tell her what we think of them.”  She started the car.

            Ten minutes later, we swung around the circular driveway of a 1960s suburban version of Tara. Tall white columns reaching up to second-floor windows. A porch that ran the entire front of the house. A small white poodle was dozing on a wicker rocking chair.

            “Wait here,” Mom said. “Do not get out of the car. We’ll go to the library when I get back.”

            I took my King Lear assignment out of my bookbag. If this was going to be anything like mom’s visits to her friends, I had time to finish Lear, write the essay and do my math homework. I wanted to get a head start. Once mom got back in the car, the rest of the evening had potential to be pretty interesting.

            The Baron’s front door had a brass knocker shaped like a horseshoe. Mom knocked three times before the door opened. A tall, thin black woman in a blue uniform opened the door and Mom disappeared into the house.  I was halfway through my math homework when the door opened, and I saw Mom was hugging a woman I assumed was Patty’s mother. I rolled down my window to hear.

            “Anything I can do,” Mom said. “Anything. Really, just let me know.”

            Margie was wiping her eyes. “Thank you, Marilyn.”

            “You have a plan.” Mom took Margie’s hands in hers. “Now all you have to do is follow through.”

            Margie sighed. “It’s up to Sam. I can only do so much.”

            “You’re stronger than you think,” Mom said. “Call if you need support.”

            They hugged and kissed each other’s cheeks. Mrs. Baron closed the door and Mom got back in the car. I put my math book down.

            “Well?” I asked. ” What happened? Does she know you’re cousins? Because Patty didn’t know.”

            Mom put her key in the ignition, looked back at the door and started the car.

            “My cousin Margie married a difficult man, more religious, more observant than our side. Very controlling, full of himself. And very, very rich. One time, when your father and I were out with them, Sam insulted me. Your father took offense. They had a fight.”

            “A fight? Like a real fight? Like a fistfight?

            “Yes. A real fight. Your father broke Sam’s nose and knocked him out. Since then, we don’t speak.  It’s a shame, really. Margie’s sister died young and her parents are gone. I’m all she has and it’s going to be hard to help.”

            “What did Sam say?” I asked. “I mean to start the fight.” My mother was pretty much the smartest, nicest person in town. Everyone loved her. What could anyone possibly say about her?

            “He called me a shiksa.” Mom smiled. “I might not have taken it seriously, but for some reason, he kept it up all night. “Does the shiksa want to dance with me? Is the shiksa having fun? Maybe some bacon for the shiksa’s salad.” He was obnoxious. Your father got fed up and asked him to cut it out. He kept going and then…”


            “He hit him.”

            I tried not to smile. My father was a former professional baseball player. He had a zero handicap. He played squash against West Point Cadets. He had muscles that made the boys in my class jealous. He could knock anyone out with a breath.

            “Margie wants to bring Patty home and talk about things.” Mom sighed. “Sam said absolutely not. He called the Rabbi to set up the Shiva service and invited all their friends and relatives.”

            “So where does that leave Patty?”

            “I want to talk with your grandmother. Would you mind if we skipped the library this week?”

            “That’s fine,” I said. “This is more important. And anyway, I have books from last week.”

            “If you run out, we can trade.” Mom started the car. “I finished Marjorie Morningstar.”

            When we got home, the house smelled like tomato sauce and Grandma was upstairs in her bedroom taking her afternoon nap. Grandma had her own apartment in the city, but she stayed with us half the week, arriving with barley sugar lollypops shaped liked zoo animals and really good bagels. Most importantly, she arrived with the promise of a night off or a weekend away for mom and dad. Willy and I adored her. She made our favorite foods and allowed us to eat the new tv dinners in the little trays with turkey and gravy and mashed potatoes. She let Willy skip his bath and stay up late to play with his trains. Sometimes, we watched the Hit Parade and sang along with Rosemary Clooney. Sometimes, I did her nails and earned an extra toasted almond ice cream.

            “I’ll go wake Grandma,” Mom said, pulling into our driveway. “Stay downstairs until I call you.”

            I headed to the kitchen for a snack and checked the pots on the stove. The tomato sauce was going to dress up Grandma’s meatloaf, but she had also made her special, depression spaghetti, which was plain spaghetti seasoned with Heinz ketchup and lots of pepper. Grandma said it was her version of marinara.  

            I stuck a piece of rye bread in the toaster and got out the butter. Rye toast was my favorite snack, but Mom said I would have to stop eating it soon or it would make me fat. So far, I was normal weight, not skin and bones exactly, but okay for my height. Mom promised to warn me when it was time to join her for carrot and celery sticks. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

            By the time the rye toast was out of the toaster, I heard mom and grandma talking. Their voices were raised, but I didn’t take them seriously. They always raised their voices when they were excited. And, this didn’t sound much like an argument, just an energetic discussion, mostly in English with a little German, Yiddish, French and Russian thrown in, none of which I understood.

            By the time we sat down to dinner, I was waiting to see who would bring up the Patty problem.  It was mom. She poured dad a glass of beer and gave him a roll, already buttered and sprinkled with salt.

            “Listen Joe,” she said. “I need you to drive over to the Barons and make up with that idiot Sam.”

            “What are you talking about?” my father looked up and wiped the foam off his upper lip.

            “Margie’s in trouble and Sam’s being his usual pain in the ass.”

            “So, what do you expect me to do about it?” My father asked. “Sam is a pain in the ass. I can’t stand the guy. It’s none of our business what they do or don’t do.”

            Mom and Grandma exchanged the look, the one that meant this wasn’t over, but they would get back to it later.  

            After dinner, I went to my room, sat down at my desk, finished my homework and packed everything in my school bag for the next day. Then I headed to the closet for a bathrobe. I was headed to the shower to wash my hair before I set it in the new style featured in Seventeen.  I opened the closet door, turned on the light and saw that someone was sitting on a stool in the back of my closet.

            “Jesus.” I tried to catch my breath. “You scared me to death.”

            “Shhhh.” Patty whispered. “Don’t make any noise.” She was wearing the same clothes as the last time I saw her.

            “Are you kidding?” I was waiting for my heart to stop pounding. “What are you doing here? My mother will kill me.”

            “Actually, your mother knows I’m here.”  She walked out of the closet and closed my bedroom door. I was struck by how little alike we looked. Patty was the prettiest girl in school. Tall with dark, thick wavy hair and pale skin. Her eyes were brown like mine, but widely set. I thought her bust-to-waist ratio was probably exactly what Seventeen Magazine had decided was the perfect amount. No wonder she drove the boys wild.

            “Your mother’s a saint, you know.” She sat down on my bed. 

            “So how did you end up in my closet?”

            “I didn’t want to stay at Nick’s and I didn’t know where to go. I found out where you lived and your grandma, my great aunt apparently, let me in. She said I should hide up here until they figure out how to convince my parents to see me.”

            “Why were you in the closet?”

            “Your mother said I had to hide from your father?”

            “Got it. You have any clothes? Did you eat?” I opened my bedroom door and hung out the “DO NOT ENTER” sign I had made to keep Willy out of my stuff.

            “No clothes, not really hungry,” Patty said. “But I could use some water.”

            “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

            “No, wait. You have to be careful.”

            “I got it,” I said. “My father is not supposed to know.”

            This turned out to be easier than I expected. Dad was asleep in front of the television in the den. The Yankee game was going full blast. Between the announcers yelling the plays and dad’s snoring, there was no chance he would see or hear me. Mom and grandma were sitting at the dining room table drinking tea and wearing their worrying faces.  They hadn’t cleared the dishes, so this was serious. One of the house rules was clearing the table right after dinner.

            “So, Patty was in my closet.” I whispered. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice? I assume you have a plan?”

            Mom stood up and walked over to me.  “We’re trying to figure this out,” she said and gave me a hug. “I’m going to put some things on a tray for Patty. Think you can keep her company until we decide what to do?”

            I nodded and opened the refrigerator. Mom took out dinner leftovers and put together a plate: meat loaf, depression spaghetti, an apple and some cookies. I filled a glass with ice water and put it on the tray, balanced everything and walked carefully up the stairs. I put the tray down on the floor and opened my bedroom door. The room was dark. Patty was fast asleep on my bed. I put the tray down on my desk, ate the cookies, and went to take a bath. I figured if Patty woke up, she would know what to do with the food.

            After my bath, Patty was still sleeping, so I took the cover off my guest bed and lay down with my flashlight and Catcher in the Rye.  I was still asking myself what Holden would do when I fell asleep. I heard the door open during the night and saw Mom and Grandma standing in the doorway whispering. Willy woke me up banging on my door.

            “Mom says get up now,” his voice cracked. He was going to be a real teenager soon and even a bigger pain. “You’re late for school.”

            I threw off the quilt and sat up. Patty was gone. Her bed was neatly made. It was as if she had never been there. I dressed quickly and went downstairs. Grandma was in the kitchen alone. She said Mom drove Dad to the station to make an early train, but she would be back to take me to school. I figured I would get the update when she returned.

            By the time Mom showed up, I was waiting on the porch with Willy. She dropped him off first and then headed to the high school building a few blocks away. She parked in front of the building. I saw Patty in a group of girls sitting on the front steps.

            “So,” I asked. “What now?”

            “You’ll see Patty in class. Obviously, you don’t say anything about last night.” Mom said. “I’m working on your father and making progress. I’m not optimistic, but if I don’t succeed, there is some chance that Patty will be living with us for a while.”

            “Secretly?” I raised my eyebrows. “How is that going to work?”

            “It won’t be secretly,” Mom said. “If they sit shiva and she’s dead to them, what difference does it make to the idiot Sam.”

            “What about Nick?”

            “What about him?”

            “I mean, if they are planning a wedding, doesn’t he need to be a part of all this?”

            Mom sighed. “I’m working on that. Go to school.”

            The next day was a classic example of how, when things are incredibly complicated, I just keep doing the day-to-day stuff as if everything is fine. I sleep, I eat, I get dressed for school, and sit in the class with the cousin I never knew I had. The one who’s pregnant and has been thrown out of her house. The one who hides in my closet and cries all night. And I just act like everything is normal. I really think human beings are amazing.

            The whole day felt normal, until mom picked me up after school, Patty was waiting for her too. We got in the car and drove to our place without talking. I had rye toast and made some for Patty, but she wasn’t hungry. Mom said we should stay out of sight, so we went up to my room to do homework. Mom said she would bring a tray for Patty.

                        At seven, I went downstairs for dinner. Dad was home from an early golf game.  Apparently, he had won his match and was in a good mood. It didn’t hurt that his golf partners had won a bundle betting on him. Dad didn’t believe in betting on his game, but he let his buddies take him out for a round, which is what he called hanging around a bar for two hours. He was smiling even before he saw Grandma’s fancy roast beef with horseradish sauce. See, everything was normal. At least at that point.

            I was impressed with how, during dinner, mom and grandma never mentioned that Patty was living upstairs. Dad told us about his game and mom made the mistake of asking Willy about his trains. That took us all the way to desert. Dad’s favorite, rice pudding with whipped cream. Mom reminded Dad that the Yankees were playing, so he went into the den, turned on the tv and was snoring by the time we cleared the dishes. Mom sent me upstairs for my bath and asked me to show Patty how the shower worked. By eleven Patty and I were both in bed. The privacy sign was still up, so Willy wasn’t allowed in, but Mom stopped by to kiss us goodnight. Patty was already asleep. I guess that’s what pregnancy does to you.

            To be honest, this whole thing had knocked me out, so I skipped reading and fell asleep immediately. I was deep in a dream when I felt a hand on my arm.

            “I don’t feel well.” Patty was standing over me. In the moonlight flooding through my window, I saw she was very pale. “Really, I don’t feel well.”

            I opened my door, checked the hallway and held Patty’s hand as we walked across the hall to the bathroom. I held Patty’s head while she leaned over the toilet. Nothing happened.

            “What is it?” I asked. “Are you nauseous? I can get you a Coke. Mom always does that for me.”

            “I’m not sure what this is.” She held her stomach and stood up. “My stomach hurts. Can I go back to bed?”

            I walked her back to bed, pulled back the covers and held my breath. The sheets were soaked with blood. Patty sat down and started to cry.

            “Listen,” I said. “I need you to wait here. I’ll get mom.” I closed the door, checked that the Keep Out sign was secure and walked down to mom and dad’s room. I walked to mom’s side of the bed and touched her shoulder.

            “What?” She lifted her head. “What’s wrong?”

            “It’s Patty. She’s bleeding all over the sheets. You need to hurry.”

            “Shhh,” she whispered. She stood up, threw on her robe. “Don’t wake your father. Go get your grandmother.” We closed her bedroom door on the way out.

            I ran down the hall to wake Grandma, who put on her robe and walked back with me to my room. Mom was on the phone, calling for an ambulance. As we walked over, she hung up the phone.

            “The ambulance will be here in fifteen,” she said. “I’m calling Margie.”

            “Listen, Margie,” she said. “Don’t talk. Just listen. Patty may be having a miscarriage. She’s bleeding heavily.”  She paused and nodded at Grandma, who was holding Patty’s hand and stroking her forehead. “Of course, I’m with her,” she said. “I’ll go with her to the hospital. Meet us there. With or without Sam.”

            Mom hung up and took Patty’s other hand. Both mom and grandma were looking at Patty, so I was the one who saw my door open and Dad in the hallway outside my door.

            “What the hell?” he asked. “What the hell’s going on here? Who the hell is this?”

            “You know very well who this is,” mom said. She was using her no-nonsense voice, the one that meant don’t mess with me. “This is Patty, my cousin Margie’s daughter. She’s bleeding. We called for an ambulance. It’s on the way.”

            “You called for what?”

            “An ambulance,” mom said, just as we heard the siren coming down the driveway. “And, Joe, I don’t have time to argue with you now, so if you would just get dressed and take my mother to the hospital to meet me that would be helpful. I’m going in the ambulance with Patty.”

            My father knew better than to argue with mom, and he knew what happened when people bleed. During the war, he had seen some of his best soldier friends bled out on the battlefield. It left him with years of anxiety that only time and golf seemed to help. And in emergencies, he was great at following mom’s instructions. He motioned to Grandma and they both went to get dressed.

            “Julia,” mom said. “You stay here with your brother. I’ll call you as soon as I can.”

            Fifteen minutes later, Patty and mom left for the hospital with two ambulance doctors and a nurse. Grandma and Dad followed in his car. I took the bloody sheets off my bed and brought them down to the washing machine, started a load and threw in some extra bleach. I watched as the machine churned and the bright red blood disappeared in the soapy water until it was like it had never been there at all. Then, I went back to my room and tried to stay awake, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

            I woke up at 6:30. Willy was sleeping, but mom, grandma and dad were not back. I woke up Willy and made sure he was dressed and had his books. I poured some cereal for both of us and tried to figure out the best way to get to school. It occurred to me that I could call my best friend, Susie. Her mom worked in the city and took the early train, so I knew she would be ready to go.  I told Susie that mom wasn’t feeling well and asked if her mother could give us a ride. By this time, Willy had started to ask questions about what was going on. I told him to keep his mouth shut and there might be a new train in it for him. Ten minutes later, Susie’s mom drove us to school. And for the rest of the day, it was like everything was normal.

            When the three o’clock bell rang, I rushed outside and sure enough, mom was waiting, standing outside the car, just like any other day. She was wearing her red coat, so I spotted her as soon as the school door opened. I waved and ran down to meet her. She gave me a hug and kiss in front of everyone, which was something I had asked her not to do, but given everything that was going on, it felt right, so I hugged back. We got into the car and sat quietly.

            “Patty’s going to be fine,” she said, taking my hand in hers. “She lost the baby, but she’s going to be fine. In a couple of days, she’ll go home and sort this out with her parents.”

            “Did you see them?” I asked. “Her parents? The Sam guy?”

            “They were at the hospital when we arrived.”

            “Was dad okay? I mean with Sam?”

            “Your father was wonderful. You know what the word mensch means?

            “Of course.” I smiled. “Grandma loves that word. ‘So and so is a real mensch’. ‘Or that SOB is no mensch.’ “

            Mom laughed. “Exactly. Well, your father’s real mensch. A real human being. He made everything so much easier.”

            “So, no shiva?”

            “No.” Mom started the car. “No shiva.”

            “What about for the baby? Will there be one for the baby?”

            Mom put her foot on the brake, turned and looked at me. “What made you ask that?”

            “I just thought that…” I hesitated. “That since it was the baby that died, if they were going to have a shiva, it should be for the baby.”

            Mom turned off the car. “Patty was only a couple of months along,” she said. “But you’re right. A life is a life. If they were going to sit shiva…” She stopped talking and took my hand.

            “I don’t understand.” I saw that mom was having trouble with the question and would use her backup plan for these kinds of questions.

            “Let me think about it,” she said, pulling out of the parking lot.

            “What will happen to Nick?”

            “The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question,” she said. “I guess we’ll know soon enough.”

            You probably think the story ends here. And in a way it did. After Patty got home from the hospital, Sam changed his mind about the shiva. A few months later, after Patty graduated, Sam and Margie paid for a wedding and four years at Cornell where Nick and Patty lived in the married couples’ dorm. Nick went on to Harvard business school and Patty used her English literature honors to read stories to the three kids she had in five years, two boys and a girl. She named her daughter Anna, after my grandmother. The boys were Simon and Josh. No one was named Sam.

            Fifteen years later, Nick was running Sam’s business and Sam was spending his time building his legacy through a series of seven-figure donations. By the time, I saw him at dad’s funeral, his name was on more than a few hospital and museum walls and Margie was a regular on the charity circuit. We kept up with them in the society pages.

            One year, Sam made a particularly generous seven-figure donation to the city’s leading museum. According to the papers, they were going to name an entire wing after him.

            “Chinese Pottery,” Mom read from the Gala invitation. “He always had a thing for Chinese pottery. Margie hates the stuff. I think he bought it to annoy her.  There’s a gala to announce the gift. I would appreciate it if you would take me.”

            The society pages predicted the event of a lifetime. Sam had hired Cirque de Soleil to entertain and a big-name band for dancing. The food would be catered by the city’s preeminent kosher caterers and served by the cast of Fiddler on the Roof, which was being revived on Broadway. The cast would sing during dessert.  Mom and I bought new dresses and met for mani-pedis on the afternoon of the event.

            “I can’t believe how many years have passed since Patty lost the baby,” I said.

            “Shhhh,” mom put her wet fingernails up. In her recent campaign to be modern, they were painted dark blue.

            “Oh, come on,” I said. ” It was a thousand years ago. You think anyone cares or even remembers?”

            “Actually, I do,” mom frowned at her nails. “You like this color?”

            “The color’s fine. Why so secretive after all these years? It was the worst kept secret in town.”

            “It was.” Mom stood up and headed to the nail dryer. “But it’s still painful, so I don’t like to talk about it.”

            That evening, we dressed at my place and, if I do say so myself, we looked gorgeous. Both in long black dresses with trendy leather tops. High heels, big fake diamonds, and bright red lipstick. We were in the taxi on our way to the Plaza when Margie called mom. I could hear her screaming over mom’s phone. Mom turned white and turned to me.

            “Sam’s dead.” she mouthed.

            “What?” I asked as a taxi swerved in front of us. Our driver hit his horn.

            “Dead,” she repeated and turned off her phone. “He dropped dead in the limo on the way to the Plaza.”

            Our driver dropped us in front of the hotel, and we headed to the ballroom to join three hundred guests, all expecting to honor Sam. Margie met Mom in the lobby and asked her to make the announcement to the guests. She had decided to go ahead with the dinner and a new program highlighting the gift and all of Sam’s favorite charities.

            “Priceless,” my mother said as she headed to the ballroom. “Instead of raising a glass to congratulate Sam, three hundred people will raise a glass to say goodbye. You couldn’t make this up.”

            Two months later, Nick finally got his CEO title and held the job until he retired at sixty-five. After retirement, he spent a year watching ESPN and playing golf before he walked out on Patty and moved to Florida with Marie, the club’s thirty-five-year-old golf pro. They moved to Miami, where he was still living. Every once in a while, I saw Patty walking her dog in the park or hailing a cab, but I was still working and with the kids and grandkids, I had a full plate. I meant to call and catch up, but you know how it is.

            Until, one Saturday afternoon, I ran into Patty in the shoe department at Saks.

            “Cousin Patty.” I smiled. “Long time…”

            “Julia.” she came over for a hug. “You look great. How are you? How’s your mom? The family?”

            “All good. ” I smiled. “Mom’s doing well. It’s been hard since dad died, but she’s making progress. How’s your mom doing?”

            “The merry widow.” Patty laughed. “Sam left her with lots of cash and she’s using it to enjoy herself.”

            I smiled. “That’s great.”

            “I agree,” Patty said. “She earned it. Now she has trips with friends. Shopping sprees. Parties for her girlfriends. I’m sure your mom was at a few of these.”

            “And you?” I asked. “How are you doing? I mean, since the divorce.”

            “Oh, I’m fine,” she said, pulling her phone out of her bag. “Look at the kids.” She scrolled down pictures of six smiling adults standing at the beach in front of eight kids of various sizes and two bored-looking teenagers. “All doing well. I’m financially secure. Have a nice place to live. Friends. It’s all good.” She smiled.

            “So, was it worth it?” I asked.

            She raised her eyebrows. “Worth it?”

            “You know.” I couldn’t help myself. “The great romance. The scandal. The shiva. Losing the baby? Was it worth it?”

            “I can’t believe you asked that,” she said, but she was still smiling. “By the time you get to our age… Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing. But I was seventeen. All alone in so many ways. I just went along with things. It was easier. And…”


            “We had a good life for a long time. Nick’s happy now with Marie. She’s Catholic, you know, so he’s gone back to the church. Hoping he’ll go to heaven.” She laughed. “Anyway, it was nice seeing you. I have to run. Let’s get together for lunch or something soon.”

            I kissed my second cousin on both cheeks and headed down the escalator to the first floor. I walked through the cosmetic section to the 50th street exit and took the Madison Avenue bus home. It was rush hour and crowds were coming out of the buildings along the Avenue and I wondered how many of them had a story to forget.  Time, I thought, time…



Lou-Ellen Barkan is a native New Yorker, currently living with her husband and an eleven year-old Golden Retriever. Her three careers, on Wall Street, in city government and not-for-profit have produced enough characters and material for a lifetime of writing. She has previously published fiction and narrative non-fiction, and written two television series with a comedian/writing partner.

A Fool for a Client, fiction by Bruce J. Berger

I read an obituary in the Times-Union the other day. Patrick Schillace, the man who almost destroyed my legal career, had been a successful businessman and politician. In his fifties, he ran for governor of Connecticut and narrowly lost, ending his political career, but his local branch of Shamrock Furriers was patronized by Albany’s best and brightest, and when he bought and renovated the Aldridge House in Saratoga Springs, where he spent his summers, he became a local legend. The obituary noted that Patrick had been survived by a son, James, of Hartford. The last time I’d seen James was in 1918, in the U.S. courthouse with his father. I’d spotted Patrick once, many years later, as I drove past Shamrock and he walked out of the store. He didn’t notice me.

            In the Criminal Law course I teach at Albany Law School, I invariably tell the Schillace story. The dean expects me to rely upon my thirty-plus years as a defense lawyer when I introduce new students to the complexities of crime and punishment. So I pose questions to the class and then answer them myself. How do the courts interpret criminal statutes? How does a prosecutor decide which cases to pursue? What are the economics of building a practice? How do you defend people you know are guilty of the crime charged? Teaching allows me to tell my favorite stories to groups of men – and an occasional woman – who’ve never heard them. My wife, Laura, and my son, Alexander, are no longer good audiences; they’ve heard them all too many times before.  

The dean doesn’t really care what I teach, to be honest, as long as I keep the students entertained. In the twenty years I’ve taught on Monday evenings, the dean has never once asked to see my syllabus. It’s just as well, because I stopped using one after the first year. Everything is committed to memory, none more so than my dealings with Schillace father and son. I show the class a newspaper photograph of a man about Patrick’s age and tear it to pieces. That gets their attention.

When you do what I do for a living, you mix with the seedy, the crooked, and the mean. Nine times out of ten, even if they didn’t do what they’re accused of, they did something else execrable and worthy of punishment. You get your hands dirty. So I lay out at the start of each semester the maxims of criminal defense practice. Maxim #1: If anyone goes to prison, make sure it’s your client and not you. The students laugh. Then I pronounce Maxim #2: A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. Another round of titters. Finally, I confess that I’ve in fact been such a fool. The pens go down, they look at me expectantly. Some wonder, I imagine, how they can be taught criminal law by a lawyer who himself had been accused of a crime.

We were at war, busy making the world safe for democracy, but I managed to avoid the draft. I had to register, though, along with all other American men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty. I could and did claim an exemption because my wife and one-year old son had no other means of support.  

The traditional thing to say here would be that I regretted not donning the uniform. In fact, I was delighted to avoid the bloodshed. Sure, I cared about democracy and I could see how saving Britain and France would be in our country’s best interests, but I didn’t then and don’t now have an ounce of physical bravery. I avoided baseball for fear of being hit by the ball. I avoided football for fear of bruising contact. I could never have stormed out of the trenches. And, of course, I didn’t want to be apart from my family for years, if not forever. So I stayed in Albany, saw friends off to war at the train station, welcomed a smaller number back in 1919, and kept my practice going.

Patrick Schillace walked in on October 13, 1917. He was in his late thirties, tall, and well-dressed, easily recognized as a man of business. He looked beleaguered, which didn’t surprise me. After all, my practice was all about helping the oppressed. I figured he might have been caught with his hand in the till or charged with facilitating prostitution. I’d already made a little name for myself getting party girls out from under the prosecutor’s thumb.

We exchanged pleasantries and got on a first-name basis. I wasn’t in a rush, but as we talked about the war and the unusually cold autumn, I studied Patrick. Why was this seemingly wealthy guy in my office and not at one of the larger law firms? I waited for Patrick to decide when he was ready to get to the point. It took a good ten minutes.

“It’s about my son, James. I need you to get him out of the Army.”

            He explained that James had enlisted. So had thousands of other young men, I reminded Patrick, and he glared at me. James’s case was special, Patrick informed me, because James had only been fifteen, well below the minimum age of seventeen. Even though now sixteen, James was still much too young to serve. The government had committed a crime by allowing itself to be deceived by his son.

“You don’t get far by accusing the government.”

“My wife and I were outraged when we got James’s letter from Camp Upton explaining what he’d done. We’d been worried like the devil about him. I tried to call the commander there to tell him they’d made a bad mistake, but could never get through. So I spent a day getting to New York City and then out to Long Island, planning to talk to the commander and my son in person.”

“And you’re going to tell me they didn’t let you near either of them.”

“Damn right. The trouble I went to just to get to the camp! A two-mile walk through the mud from the station, and I can’t even get past the first guard. I knew that was unconstitutional, not being allowed to talk to your son, even if he is on a military base. The First Amendment gives me the right of free speech and the right to assemble to redress grievances, doesn’t it?”

“But the Army doesn’t see it that way.” Patrick’s expectations – that the government was required to jump to his command – intrigued me.

“James realized he’d made a bad mistake. He hadn’t been doing well at school and, well, I’d been rather harsh with him. He thought that the Army would be an escape, but he hadn’t considered how hard it would be. He’s not a strong boy. Somehow he survived basic training, but when he got a weekend pass, he didn’t return. He got in touch with me and I helped him get back home to Torrington. That’s where he’s hiding now.”

Fascinating. I’d never had a case defending a fugitive. I knew instinctively that I needed to be careful, but I decided to take the case if I could obtain a hefty fee. I first needed to have Patrick sign an agreement that I was not promising any results. I’d learned by this time that businessmen expected never to lose anything in court and could make their lawyers miserable if they failed to gain their objectives.

“So what exactly do you think I can do?”

“Fix it so that the enlistment is void, of course. That’s what lawyers do, isn’t it? Fix things?”

He sounded desperate, which I liked. It wasn’t that I enjoyed the suffering of my fellow human beings. I chose law instead of other possible professions because I wanted to alleviate suffering, and medicine was out because I lacked a scientific mind. And hated the sight of blood. I liked Patrick’s desperation for his son because that would motivate him to pay me well for my services. It was tough making a living on what hookers could offer. One big case would brighten my entire year financially. So I knew I could use to my benefit the fear that a father feels for his son, fear of the harsh punishment imposed on any deserting soldier, fear of punishment that could include the death penalty.  

“Look, Patrick, I have to be honest with you. This sounds terrible. We’re at war, and your son, a soldier, runs away from his unit, while his buddies are shipped off to France. Some of those buddies are going to die, have died already. You think the government’s going to back off and apologize for its mistake? Not on your life.”

“Do I need to find another lawyer, someone with enough guts to take this case?”

I had to suppress a smile. Patrick was trying to out-bluff me, threatening to walk out the door. I had a pretty solid feeling that he wouldn’t have come to me without having first run through a gamut of better known, more expensive lawyers. The senior lawyers in town wouldn’t touch this kind of case, because defending a deserter would itself seem unpatriotic. They’d fear, not only the loss of business, but the perpetual tarnishing of their reputations as good citizens. A young lawyer like me, one with a family that had to be fed, had much less to lose.

“Well, you don’t have to hire me. You can decide as you will. But I didn’t say I wasn’t taking the case. I’m trying to let you know what you’re in for and what James is in for if we lose.”

“I know it’s bad.” The look of utter desperation returned to Patrick’s face. He could not sustain his bluff for even a minute.

“So, here’s what we can do. You retain me as James’s lawyer. You advance me seventy-five dollars against my fee of one-hundred fifty. The fee goes up to three hundred a week if we go to trial. You sign an understanding that I’m not guaranteeing anything. I talk to James privately and get the story straight from him. I might have to advise him to return to Camp Upton, even though we know he’s too young and no longer wants the Army. Believe me, it still might be his best option. Deserters can be sent away for life or shot.”

“He’s not a deserter.”

I’d made Patrick angry as I intended.

“Right. As you say. Not a deserter, although he’s just for some reason not with his unit that’s getting ready to ship out.”

Patrick clenched his jaw. I could see the veins in his neck bulge. He balled up his hands into fists.

“Or, if I see a way to try to void his enlistment, and that’s how James wants to handle it after I talk to him, that’s what I’ll try to do. It has to be James who decides.”

Patrick wasn’t happy. He wanted me to mastermind a brilliant, ironclad way out for his son, for one thing, and he didn’t like paying my fee without a guarantee of success, for another. But he’d run out of options. After a bit of haggling, where I dropped my fee to one-hundred forty-five dollars, we reached an agreement, I typed it up, and he signed. It’s faded, but I still have it framed and hanging in my office to remind me of my stupidity.

We agreed to meet at my folks’ farmhouse two miles outside of Albany. We could confer in person only in New York State, I told Patrick, because that’s where I was licensed. The truth was, though, that I didn’t want to waste two days getting to Torrington and back. I chose the farm because I didn’t want to attract attention in downtown Albany.

            When I first laid eyes on James, I couldn’t believe he’d convinced the recruiting officer he was seventeen. He was at best five feet six, skinny, pale, and had a vacant look about him, as if he’d just woken up and wasn’t sure where he was. I could well imagine him hiding in his parents’ basement, getting no exercise, sunlight, or fresh air. I asked my folks to put on coffee and wait in the kitchen while I took Patrick and James into the dining room. We sat at the large oak table at which I’d eaten every meal growing up. I could see the scars and stains from years past.

            “So, James, I’m Hank Brown, the lawyer your dad got for you.” I offered my hand, but James kept his eyes straight in front of him, his hands on his lap. I glanced at Patrick, but his head was down, too; he was studying his bootlaces. I looked back at James. “How old are you?”

            Finally, he turned toward me, barely managing a whisper. “Sixteen.”

            “Well, I can’t represent you …” I rephrased in mid-sentence. “I can’t be your lawyer unless you want me to be. I have to know whether you want me to be your lawyer.”

            He looked at his father, who nodded his head slightly. James turned again toward me. “Yes Sir. I’d like you to be my lawyer.” I’d been holding my breath and exhaled audibly. Okay, step one accomplished.

            “All right. I’m your lawyer now. What we say is secret. Patrick, will you excuse us, please? You can sit with my folks in the kitchen.”

“But I’m paying your bill, Hank,” he whined. “And he’s my son.” Patrick was obviously not used to being put out of meetings. As far as he was concerned, I was one of his hires, to be pushed around at will.

“Both of those are true, but the attorney-client relationship is only between me and James. We have to follow the rules to the T or we don’t do this.”

Patrick pushed his chair back from the table, stood, and placed his hand on James’s shoulder. “All right. Son, answer Hank’s questions. Be honest.”

He left none too soon, because he’d been getting on my nerves. I could hear my father offering him coffee. I waited until they were chatting softly before I continued. “James, what we say now stays between you and me. Do you understand?”

            “Yes Sir.” With Patrick out of the room, James was more relaxed.

            “I need to know how you ended up in the situ … in the Army.” 

            His manner was halting, but the story gradually emerged. James had got it into his head to run away. He’d decided that joining in the Army would be fun and, since the Army needed to bulk up rapidly, thought it might accept him. He forged a “to whom it may concern” letter from Patrick granting him permission to enlist and traveled to Albany, thinking it would be too easy for the Army to check his age in Connecticut. He gave a false birthdate and a false address in Rochester and got in without trouble, but he hated the Army from the first day, knew he made a terrible mistake. When he received his first pass, he left without intending to return. For two months, he’d hidden in the basement of his parents’ home.

            “All right, James. One possible way to fix this is for you to go back in, still pretend you’re seventeen. I could negotiate with the Army to make sure they don’t prosecute you for desertion and perhaps you’d spend a few days in jail for having been absent. After serving that penalty, you’d be back where you were, probably rejoin your unit in Europe.”


            “Just ‘no’? Do you want to explain?”

            “No. I’m not going back.”

            Somehow I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t getting the whole story and needed to know everything. “Well, James, you don’t like the Army, but I bet none of the others in your unit like it either. They stayed, you left.”

            “I’m not going back, Mr. Brown. The drill sergeant kicked me every time I did something wrong.” I could sense that James was about to cry. “The others – they weren’t my buddies – they’d pick on me, punch me when they felt like amusing themselves. So, no.” He wiped away a tear with the back of his hand.

“Second option. You stay where you are, the house in Torrington, and I try to get the enlistment voided – ripped up – on grounds it was illegal from the start. I might have to tell the government where you’re hiding, and you might be arrested. If they want to go after you, you might have to stay in jail until the legal case is done. If you lose, the penalty could be bad. Is that something you’re willing to risk?”

            “Yes, because I’m done with the Army.”

            “Even if we win – let’s say we show that you can’t legally be a deserter since you were never old enough to enlist – they might draft you anyway when you’re old enough to be drafted.”

“What if the war’s over?”

“I guess if no war then no draft.”

            “Well, I’m not going back in the Army.”

            So we resolved to fight. I told James to lie low while I pressed negotiations with the enemy – our government – as fast as I could. I invited Patrick back from the kitchen, and he came in holding a glass of milk for his son. After a few minutes of idle chatting, we said goodbye.

I drafted a complaint seeking an order to void the enlistment and sent a copy to the Judge Advocate General Corps in New York City, where I figured the complaint would go anyway once it was filed. Two days later, I received a telephone call from a Colonel Hawkins, saying that he understood the situation, thought the Army recruiters had messed up, and – if I could let them know the whereabouts of the young Mr. Schillace – they would consider voiding the enlistment. Without a firm written agreement, however, I wasn’t going to tell them any more about my client than they needed to know.  

We jawed back and forth over a week. I told Hawkins in passing that James didn’t look a day over fourteen, that he’d been abused by the drill sergeant as well as the other recruits, that the Army would look ridiculous trying to put him in jail, and that the Army had plenty of soldiers because of the draft. I could sense Hawkins becoming more annoyed with each conversation. He questioned my patriotism and asked why I hadn’t been drafted, neither of which I dignified with a response. He ranted about how, as an officer of the bar, I should know better than to get involved with a low-life deserter. He laughed when I made the speech about how everyone was entitled to a lawyer. He demanded to know which pigsty I was born in. Near the end of the week, however, something changed. Suddenly, Hawkins’s tone softened and he was amenable to a deal. I had delivered to him James’s birth certificate and a recent photograph of the boy, chosen to make him look sick as well as young. Hawkins signed a document voiding the enlistment and noting – at my insistence – that James would thereafter be deemed unsuitable for military service. Only when I held this in hand did I provide Hawkins with the family’s address in Torrington.

James was delighted with the result, as was Patrick, who wanted to know if I could reduce my fee since I hadn’t needed to do very much work. I took off $5.00, providing the balance could be paid the next day.

When the money arrived via Western Union, I paid my overdue rent and took Laura out to dinner at the Mansion Hill Inn while her folks watched Alexander. She was proud of me, she said, and my success proved that her parents had been wrong in opposing our marriage. At dinner, we shared a bottle of wine, happy that the eighteenth amendment was not yet in place. Afterward, we picked up our son, and when we got home we quickly put him in his crib and dived into bed.  

            That should have been the end of the story, right?

            Two weeks later, I was arrested.

The deputy federal marshal, Aaron Lancaster, walked into my office, showed me the warrant, and told me to follow him over to the U.S. courthouse. He said he wouldn’t handcuff me because he didn’t expect any trouble. We could just walk together, like we were on our way to breakfast. I assumed this was a bad joke until I looked more closely at the other document he showed me, on the stiff, high-quality bond paper used for federal indictments. The grand jury had accused me of “harboring and concealing” a fugitive from the armed services of the United States and “aiding and abetting” his avoidance of military responsibility. The supposed beneficiary of my crime was James Schillace, my client.

I still thought it was a joke. Had to be. The U.S. Attorney, Paul Thomas, couldn’t be serious about prosecuting a lawyer who had done nothing more than any other lawyer would have done representing a client in trouble.

            Aaron frowned. “It’s no joke, Hank, sorry to say. Paul had the grand jury in last week, and, although I ain’t supposed to tell you, this guy from Connecticut come up to testify and was the star witness. Everybody in the courthouse knows about it.”

            “The guy from Connecticut?” 

            “Schillace’s father, Patrick. But you never heard that from me.”

            “Hang on a second.” I opened my office safe and pulled out twenty dollars, which I figured would be enough to cover bail. With the money in my pocket, I walked next to Aaron up the five long blocks to the courthouse, saying hello to a few people I knew, trying to look calm, pretending that taking a stroll with the deputy federal marshal was an everyday occurrence. He walked me straight into Paul’s office, then stayed at the door. The situation was ludicrous. I walked up to Paul’s desk, and he stood to face me

            “Hank, I’m sorry to have to do this to you, but I’m following a directive of the Attorney General. He’s rabidly against anyone interfering with the …”
            “This is a cock-and-bull stunt, Paul, and you know it. All I did was work out a deal for the kid, who the Army should never have allowed to enlist. If anyone should go to jail, it’s the damn recruiting officer.”

            “Yeah, well.” He yawned, as if he had much more important business. “That’s not how it works.”

            “How am I supposed to have harbored a fugitive?” I tossed the papers onto his desk, and we stared at them for a couple of seconds.

            “Hank, you’ve got to watch your temper. You know we can’t go into our evidence. I asked Aaron to bring you here so I could tell you that this is nothing personal. I like you. You’re scrappy, good in court. But I warn you, Hank. I have to do my job. If you’re convicted, I’m going to ask that you serve time in Allenwood. Get yourself a good lawyer.”

            By this time, my face was burning red. I wanted to kick him in the groin. He was going to try to put me in a federal prison and had the gall to say it wasn’t personal. My brain shut off, and I told him I would represent myself.

            “Big mistake, Hank. Big mistake.”

            “It’s nothing personal, Paul, but by the end of this case you’re going to be eating crow.” I got up and told Aaron to handcuff me. I wanted to be handcuffed at my arraignment, right up until I was released. I wanted to remember the feel of the hard and cold metal against my skin.

I won’t go into detail of how I screwed up. Any lawyer with a lick of sense will tell you the multiple ways I was a fool. In my zeal to defend myself, I forgot basic rules of trial practice: Know your judge. Don’t waste his time. Arrange for witnesses, believable if possible, any in a pinch. I was so consumed with indignation that my typically creative way of managing a defense vanished, as if my brain had gone dead. I lost sleep ruminating about the unfairness of the world, and, when I got to my office, it took hours before I could do anything but drink coffee and stare out the window.

Suffice it to say that I filed a lot of useless legal paper, which the assigned judge, Carter L. Kiefe, ignored. I had never appeared before Kiefe and didn’t know much about him because he hailed from Saratoga Springs, took the train down every week, and did not socialize around town. Had I retained a competent lawyer, the first thing he would have done – if he didn’t already know Kiefe – was learn everything that could be learned. Only then would he have planned his strategy. Instead, my effort to exonerate myself through fancy pleadings in ignorance of Kiefe’s background was the dumbest thing I’ve done in the practice of law. I discovered that I was in even bigger trouble than I’d thought. Kiefe’s son was in the Army, fighting in Europe. When I found out, I rashly filed a motion demanding that Kiefe recuse himself. Who in his right mind would think that a judge could be impartial when the subject of the case hit so close to home? Kiefe denied the motion as untimely, as well as without basis, two hours after I filed it.

            I was unable to sleep the night before the trial, a bad case of nerves making my stomach crawl in on itself. Our house was a block of ice. As I loaded coal into our furnace, I thought about the day ahead. I’d never been anxious in a courtroom before, although my clients might well have been. They were the ones who might be locked away, and some of them certainly had been despite my efforts. Some were even in Allenwood, where I might end up. It was too late to do anything about my foolish decision to defend myself.

I started to heat water, and Laura emerged from our bedroom, pulling a robe around herself and shivering. We sat across from each other, drinking coffee, neither of us able to start a conversation. Finally, I had to leave. She kissed me goodbye and told me that she still loved me, whatever the outcome, but insisted that I pass along to her the extra keys to my office and the combination to my safe, just in case. So much for spousal confidence.

That’s how it was on an Arctic morning in January 1918, in the middle of the coldest spell of weather anyone in Albany could remember, when I went on trial. It took me twenty full minutes to walk, on a treacherous glaze of ice and against a fierce wind, the five blocks from my office to the courthouse. I fell more than once. As I entered the building where I had practiced law for six years, a colleague who’d been my friend looked away.

In Kiefe’s courtroom, potential jurors had already been assembled, sitting on the pew-like benches behind the bar. Paul smiled at them from where he sat at the prosecution’s table. I took my place at the opposite table and nodded to the few jurors I knew. After keeping us waiting for ten minutes, Kiefe finally came out in his black robe, banged his gavel, and we were under way. He’d gotten rid of his clerk months earlier, telling everyone that he didn’t need one. He ordered the first twelve jurors into the box, denied their appeals to be excused, and denied Paul’s and my challenges. Then he called us to the bench and informed us that he would not allow opening statements. He would himself tell the jury what the case was about in less time than it would take us to tie our shoes, he said. He made it clear that the trial would be over as soon as possible, because it was a Friday and the last train to Saratoga Springs left at three. He would be on it, one way or another.

I didn’t like the jurors. Some were men I knew who, like the judge, had boys fighting in Europe. But one of them – with daughters only – had been my science teacher in high school, Ellis Caruthers. For a second I thought I was lucky to have him on the jury, until I recalled that I’d once tossed a lit firecracker in his classroom’s garbage can when his back was turned. As I said, science was never my subject. I offered a silent prayer that he’d forgotten.

            Paul called Patrick Schillace as his first witness. Patrick made it sound as if I had sought him out, hoping to find an Army deserter to represent. His version of our initial meeting made it seem as if all he wanted was to get James back into the Army without punishment. He lied, accusing me of raising the possibility that James need not go back at all and that could I best achieve this as long as James stayed hidden. He swore that I’d instructed James at our farmhouse meeting to “lie low,” a phrase I didn’t recall using, but even if I had I didn’t see it as a big deal. When Paul sat down with “no further questions,” most of the jurors looked at me with grim faces, no doubt wondering why I had tried to subvert the war effort.

I took a deep breath and stood to cross-examine. I realized there was only one reason Patrick might have turned on me. In the few seconds that elapsed before I asked my first question, I had to decide exactly how to show the jury that the witness could not be believed.

“Patrick, you’re saying I harbored and concealed young James?” I tried to keep my voice calm and unconcerned. I tried not to sweat, a successful effort in that the courtroom was freezing; the building’s furnace was hardly sufficient for the unprecedented cold outside.

“I didn’t use those words, Hank. I just told the truth.” He turned toward the jury and nodded. Caruthers nodded back at him.

“We’ll get to that in a minute. But let’s go back to my question. James hid in your basement in Connecticut, right?”

“You told him to go back there.”

“When he ran away from the Army and contacted you, that was long before I ever met him, wasn’t it?”

“I suppose.”

“Speak up, Patrick. I don’t think the court reporter got that. By the time James had left the Army and came back to your house, that was long before you and I ever met, let alone before I met James?”

“I suppose. Yes.”

“You suppose? Can we just have a straight yes?”


“You told him to hide in your basement?”

“Where else could he hide?”

“Exactly. That’s where he was hiding before you ever walked into my office, right?”

At this point, Patrick clammed up. He turned to Kiefe as if expecting the judge to protect him, but Kiefe sat stone-faced.

“Patrick, just answer the question so we can get these busy jurors back to their regular lives. They all need to make a living.” I looked at the jurors, trying to convey that I was just a hard-working lawyer concerned about their time and how their businesses would suffer the longer they spent in the box.

“Yeah, he was hiding there before I ever met you.” Patrick’s voice had turned sullen, almost nasty. I was pleased that I had managed to keep my voice matter-of-fact.

“Now, Mr. Thomas over there, the federal prosecutor, made a deal with you, right?” Patrick glanced at Thomas, who too late realized that he’d made a bad mistake. He’d forgotten to bring out his little arrangement with the witness. Now it looked like both Patrick and the prosecutor had hid something.

“A deal?” Patrick’s voice turned from sullen to squeaky. He started to sweat, despite the frigid air.

Paul jumped up. “We’ll stipulate the United States government gave Mr. Schillace immunity from prosecution, Your Honor.” He emphasized “United States government.” If there had been a deal, he was telling the jury, it had been sanctioned at the highest levels.

“That’s okay, judge, I’ll ask another question.” I figured if it looked like I had conceded the point, the judge would let me continue.

“So, Patrick, Mr. Thomas told you that if you testified against me – the lawyer you went to on behalf of your son – then he would not prosecute you for hiding James, didn’t he?”

There was a long pause. Patrick looked uncertain. He’d heard Paul stipulate to immunity from prosecution but wasn’t sure whether that meant he should answer me or resist. The pauses in a witness’s answer can be much more important than anything that comes out of his mouth. I tried to fight the hope that had begun to swell inside, damn well not wanting to seem overconfident.

“You heard the question?” Before giving Patrick a chance to respond, I continued. “The deal was that if you got up on the stand and tried to put me in jail, you wouldn’t have to go jail yourself, right?”

“No.” Patrick had gotten more strength into the voice, but the jurors knew he was lying.

“You don’t want to go to jail, do you, Patrick?”

At that point, Patrick just stared at me. I decided to leave well enough alone and sat down.

Paul called James Schillace as his next witness, and everyone turned to the door of the courtroom. I assumed Paul intended to have James talk about our meeting and confirm that I’d told him to lie low. When James entered, his appearance proved Maxim #3: everything that happens in a courtroom is evidence. He looked like a waif lost in a grown-up world. He seemed to have lost weight since I’d last laid eyes on him months earlier. He approached the witness chair uncertainly, glanced at his father who now sat in the gallery, and tripped on his own feet, preventing himself from falling by grabbing my table.   

Kiefe leaned forward to get a good look at James, and I thought he was about to administer the oath, but he surprised me. “Members of the jury, you are excused for a short break.” They filed out through the juror door. “James,” he said to the confused boy, “go back and sit with your father for a while. I need to talk to the lawyers.” As James retreated, Kiefe instructed his court reporter to take a break. Our meeting would not be on the record.

Inside his chambers, Kiefe took his time before getting down to business. He showed us his family photographs, including a photograph of his son just before he boarded the ship for Europe. Kiefe had been there for the send-off off, proud of his son. Then he showed us a photograph of himself with Thomas Gregory, Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General, and told a convoluted story of how they met at the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis. I assumed Kiefe had a purpose, although I couldn’t make out what it was. Having been in such a rush to get the trial going just an hour earlier, it now seemed as if he had all the time in the world and didn’t mind keeping the jurors and the witnesses waiting.

Finally, Kiefe motioned for us to sit on a leather sofa and took a seat on a facing chair. It was as cold inside his chambers as in the courtroom, and he kept on his black robes. He turned to Paul. “That boy is quite a specimen, isn’t he?”

“I don’t know what you mean, Judge.”

Kiefe reached out and put his hand on Paul’s knee. “Sure you don’t.” Paul seemed uncomfortable, even after Kiefe removed his hand. “Well, it doesn’t matter if you know what I mean, but now that I see this boy, I know you’re a dolt for pursuing this. I had the impression that Hank here had taken a real soldier, moved him around from hiding spot to hiding spot, and helped him avoid capture by the Army folks looking for him.”

“He did almost that, Judge. Told him to ‘lie low.’ Isn’t that just as bad? He should have grabbed him by the collar and dragged him down to the federal marshal and had the boy arrested.”

Kiefe chuckled and turned to me. “Well, Hank, what you got to say about that?”

What did I have to say about it? Kiefe had ignored my brief, but something had shifted during the hour we’d spent in trial, and he was giving me another a chance to show him that the case was a travesty. “I didn’t tell James where or how to hide. That was something he was doing on his own, with his father’s help. I was just his lawyer. Case should be closed.” There was a lot more I wanted to say. I wanted to talk about the right of every American to a lawyer and how Paul had trampled on that right, but I also needed to respect the judge’s time, particularly when he could be leaning in my direction. Particularly when he’d made it clear that he needed to get on a train that afternoon. I stood as if to return to the courtroom.

Kiefe told me to sit and turned back to Paul. “Hank’s right, Paul. We’re going back in there, and you’re going to say on the record that the government dismisses the indictment.”

“But why, Judge?” Paul’s question made him sound like an eleven-year-old who’d been told to milk the cows when it was ten degrees below zero in the barn.

“I have to give you reasons? Okay. Anyone who’d end up in a platoon with that runt of a boy would be fighting with a serious handicap. He should have been sent home with his tail between his legs, not welcomed into the Army. Where’s your brain?”

“That’s not a reason for dropping the charges, Judge. The Army’s not on trial. Hank’s on trial. I still have a case against Hank, and it’s one that the Attorney General absolutely wants to press.” Paul gestured at the photograph of Kiefe and Gregory. “We’re putting people in jail for draft evasion left and right. We can’t just sit by while a lawyer helps a deserter hide from his duty. The jury should decide.”

Kiefe leaned closer to Paul until their faces were mere inches apart. “Here’s your last reason, Paul, and listen closely. If you don’t do what I just told you to do, I’m going to dismiss every indictment you bring until President Wilson removes you as the U.S. Attorney or one of us dies. And when Gregory calls me to find out what’s up, I’ll tell him that you, Paul Thomas, are a horse’s ass and that he should talk to the President about whether you’re really competent to do the job here. Will that work as a reason?”

Paul looked glum, while I could not help but smile. We rose, and I put a hand on Paul’s shoulder to console him. He pushed it away and said, “All right, Hank, you win this round. You’re lucky.” Kiefe and I looked at each other and shrugged while Paul stormed back into the courtroom.

To say I was lucky was an understatement. There was no way anyone could have predicted Kiefe’s visceral reaction to the sight of James Schillace. There was no way anyone could have anticipated what Kiefe would do when he realized that the Army had wanted to send a timid boy onto a battlefield where his fellow soldiers’ lives might depend upon him, where one of those fellow soldiers might be none other than Kiefe’s son.

After Paul dismissed the case and Kiefe sent the jurors home, Paul and Patrick got into a loud argument. Paul accused Patrick of having been a dunce in answering my questions; Patrick called Paul a wimp. Paul sneered that he should have stuck with his first instinct and tried to put Patrick in jail; Patrick rebutted that he wouldn’t hire Paul to be a janitor in one of his stores. Aaron, the deputy marshal, had to hold Paul back from taking a swing at Patrick. As I walked out, I could hear them still going at it, Paul yelling that Patrick should take his baby boy back to his nursery, Patrick calling Paul a harsh name that I cannot repeat.   

Almost twenty-four years later, Alexander – who enlisted in the Navy in 1940 – was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. He survived, fought his way through the South Pacific, got home in 1945, and sped through law school in two years. He just joined my practice. Alexander was the person who’d brought Patrick’s obituary to my attention.



Bruce J. Berger received his MFA in Creative Writing from American University followinga forty-year career as a lawyer in Washington, DC. He now teaches writing at American University. His debut novel, The Flight of the Veil, appeared in October 2020 and won an Illumination Bronze Award for General Fiction.

Once Upon A Time in Jato-Aka, fiction by Carl Terver


The only tarred road in our small village town of Jato-Aka was flanked by old colonial buildings with elevated storefronts. See the horizon? If you’re a newcomer, you feel you can pull it down like a curtain and see Cameroon, because that’s the country behind the hills. But Jato-Aka was a country, too. A very silent one. Until one day Old General drove into it in his Grand Cherokee trailed by two pickup truckloads of household stuff.

His arrival did not penetrate the silence so much. In the morning, some devout boy rang the bell at the church waking the village, dragging devout mothers from their beds to morning mass. Silence abounded still because Jato-Aka was one of those places whose days held an imaginary grievance over its existence. The cocks crowed at given intervals in the day, the roads welcomed footsteps that cared about it. Our afternoons were calm and quiet so that any sound heard—the birds chirping, the ebbing drum of automobiles, the thud of pestle against mortar—seemed near and far at the same time. At night, Jato-Aka bore the semblance of a small city as generators gave life to 60 and 100 watts bulbs. Men talked about the government. Women talked about farming seasons and market days. Girls gossiped. And boys debated over the Premier League.

We often called the retired army General with his Grand Cherokee, Janala. His return to this place was for reasons no one knew. Whoever returned to a graveyard? He opened a school and named it after himself. The old government primary school here lived in past glories, glimpsed only in the few old men and women who occasionally displayed a command of Queen’s English. But it had become something that only once existed but was now a ghost of itself—so the old General’s school wasn’t taken seriously. As days grew boring for him, I’m sure, mostly when he was done wandering and being so much of a foreigner, which I shall soon tell you about, he began to visit the drinking shop where we all wasted time and talked endlessly about the world. And there he wooed many with bottles of Schnapps; and with his words, oratorical and unrelatable as they came, but which everyone agreed were sagely.

I often had the feeling he acted too much like a bloody colonial District Officer. On placid afternoons, Janala collected things. All kinds: junk, scrap metal, any abandoned thing that resembled a relic. He took many walks, visited homes, and had conversations with the villagers about the town. He created a lot of fanfare, that man. A new poster often appeared about a new activity. One time, it was a poster for the recruitment of young men to form a vigilante group he called Boundary Squadron. Another, about a quiz competition at his school. Another, about a games bazaar. And lastly—in God’s name—a science fair! He found a disciple in one of the widows here. She gave her 11-year-old son Bem to his school and Bem became Janala’s favourite kid. One day, the boy asked a question as they sat in a boat, each with his hook and line.

Ortamen Janala, he said. Er nena man ulua ivyu sha ityo gbin nahana? Ortamen Janala, why do you have a lot of white hairs?

Because I am an old man.

My grandma—she isn’t older than you, yet, she walks with a stick. How come?

Because she isn’t dieting.

What is dieting? Bem asked.

It means eating the right things, Janala said.

Tomorrow, let’s learn about dieting, said the boy.

Thus, we lived with him and his eccentricities; he was one of us after all, a true son of Jato-Aka with right to the soil. But I never expected, one great afternoon, when I tuned the radio that I would hear myself listening to Radio Jato-Aka. I have a brief history of how it began. Bem said that as Janala sat on his chair one day listening to the buzz from his radio, Janala slept off. He had nearly fallen off his chair when he staggered and regained himself, and thought indignantly about how lousiness was creeping on him, so he directed his anger at the radio. “Kuku,” Janala cursed. “These radio stations don’t have shit to broadcast—” So he collected the radio and flung it at the wall, making it scatter to the ground. As the components scattered on the ground, he lit up with an idea. The next morning, he carried some tools with Bem, found a spot on a hill, and built a radio station.

They reported the weather and news, local and foreign. At night, they played popular traditional songs. This won Janala some believers. And one day—stay with me—when gliders over Cameroon’s hills missed their way by wind into our town, Janala brought out a compass from an old iron toolbox and sent the aliens back over the hills. When this news spread like harmattan bushfire, we began to see more children in the morning, whom when we asked them where they were going, they gladly told us, ze mba zan manta u Janala, we are going to Janala’s school.

Even I began to give interest into the spectacle of the old man. He was indeed something, for the way the children in our town spoke with light in their eyes about him, we certainly felt there was that thing called dreaming. Then one day, it happened again, the pestilence of locusts that struck every year, unexpectedly. In the time the old General was back, it had not happened. The Fulanis came.


That day, Bem plucked a book from Janala’s shelf and, stepping out of the main house, walked to their backyard house built on a small hill to read. It was there from the window, he saw flames rising in the sky. People burning things, he thought. Groundnut or guinea corn peels, soybeans chaff, bush burning. Then he heard a wailing and thought: another young husband beating his wife.

That was when Janala walked in with a shotgun in his hand.

Bem, he shouted, u ngu eren nyi, what are you doing?—Janala’s words marched into Bem’s head. Don’t you see houses burning? Don’t you know people have been killed?

Bem started, closed the book and leapt from the chair. Janala had never spoken to him in Tiv before and his expression was without charm, but grave. Bem saw the gun his Janala’s hands and knew why he had heard the loud sounds, too.

From the floor, Janala pulled off the carpet and revealed a square opening with a descending staircase to the basement. He went in, Bem after him.

Many of us arrived at Janala’s house later that noon. Gripped by fear, it was our fortress because the old soldier fired his gun earlier in the day. We brought the injured when Ortwer, Jato-Aka’s one-man healthcare service was helpless with the blood of hacked victims pooling on the verandah of his chemist shop. Janala’s boys, the Boundary Squadron, whose training had not seen usefulness, arrived and assisted with First Aid.

This is too much, one of them said.

Not too much, returned Janala.

Spurts of Sir! Sir! Sir! came from the boys when they saw him and saluted.

On a very hot afternoon, Bem said. On a very hot afternoon.

What, one of the boys asked.

The attack, Bem replied.

You prefer at night or at dawn when they can do more damage? It’s not as if we’ve ever been able to fight them back. Don’t they just turn back, go, and then come again?

The afternoon gave way and the day began to wane in light. But Janala’s compound was crowded even. He wanted to tell us that the Fulanis won’t return at night, as such a rumour had spread.

Ior ve yem sha uyar vev, he said. People should go to their houses.

Bem thought he should have said, “Hanmaor nan yem sha ya u nan”—Everyone should go to his house. By saying “people,” Janala was passive. Or he should have given a command: Go to your houses, everyone. Bem surmised, as a natural Tiv boy, that Janala didn’t speak good Tiv.

We didn’t move, so Janala fired a shot into the sky. The shock passed but nobody moved still. A woman broke into a cry.

By tomorrow when they are sure of safety or get hungry, they will leave, Bem said.

Bem’s prophecy came true. After the third day, Janala’s compound cleared out except for a few people who turned it into a hospital for their injured, camping and visiting, for the love of free antibiotics. This distracted the schoolchildren because one of their classrooms was transformed into a clinic. And there were the other women camped in the compound, cooking for Janala’s squadrons, the kind semi-doctors and soldiers in charge of our Jato-Aka. The aroma of their cooking was a serious distraction when it wafted into the classrooms and forced the teachers to muse about heaven. But a major distraction came two days later in the sound of sirens and men clad in black.


The convoy of the Commissioner of Police abused our only road, which ended in the market area. It wound its way and poured into Janala’s horseshoe residence and primary school. Helmet- and bulletproof clad policemen jumped from Hiluxes and stood in formation. The schoolchildren tilted their classrooms to the side of the windows, to the trucks and men and guns. See commando gun. See soja. See that big man, they said, Bem told us.

The big man was the Commissioner of Police who stepped out of a Land Cruiser with a staff in his hand. He was twice in size as one of his men—an elephant. He held a newspaper and walked with a slight limp and the practiced gait of importance. He walked to the poles hoisting the flags of the school and the country at the entrance to Janala’s office. 

No one knew what the two men talked about, as they were alone in that office. Nonetheless, rumours about their conversation spread. But I imagined something like this:

The CP walks into Janala’s office and takes a seat without being asked to, and says, “Retired General Tarfa Orakaa, good morning.”

“Mr Commissioner,” Janala may answer. 

The Commissioner tosses the newspaper to Janala. They have serious arguments.

“Look, General. Retired. You have a serious case on your head. You are ordered to back down in case you have any further plans with this thing you started,” the CP says.

Maybe Janala is poised by his years as a serviceman to undermine the CP.

So the CP goes on, “You are raising a militia. You are—”

And Janala says, “And there’s a militia out there butchering people.”

“I have orders—Your squadron,as it says in the papers—”

Janala retorts and the CP says Janala has raised his voice. Then his fatwa follows: “I have been asked to keep you under house arrest until you give up your cache of ammunition. My boys will be around.”


That day, three days ago, when Janala and Bem went into the basement of the backyard house, they came out prepared for a small war. This is how the story goes:

Two Boundary Squadron sergeants received M16s. They mounted surveillance in the direction the attackers might have likely returned from. With binoculars and comms linked to the General, they were prepared for anything.

In one of Janala’s classrooms, a crisis room was set up and a map of Jato-Aka, which Bem and Janala drew by traversing the whole town, and with the aid of Google Maps, was displayed on a board.

Janala said, “The assailants came from here,” as he pointed at a spot on the map to his squadron. “From my study of the terrain,” he continued, “I believe this is their only entry point into Jato-Aka. From here. I know they are coming back. I shot their men.”

The squadron boy who told me all this said he had wondered if their manpower was enough for the enthusiasm. There were twelve of them. He asked Janala once why they were not twenty-five or more but Janala answered him with wisdoms about the art of war.

Bem stayed in the improvised comms room monitoring a radar’s screen covering the layout of Jato-Aka.

That first night at Janala’s house when we refused to go home, a bonfire was built at Bem’s suggestion. A kind of wake-keep, he said. There was no short supply of food as the fire burned throwing golden sparks of light. A wry drama was performed by an improvised troupe. A woman raised a traditional song. Radio Jato-Aka did not air; we were in a moment of silence. Over the horizon, we wondered what the Cameroonians were up to, did they enjoy their place in the cosmos? Or fraught, were they, with a violence of their own? Or whether they danced to local music and drank local brew somehow, crickets making sounds in one of their villages.

Why should one man have more right to kill another, Bem asked.

Shi a hii ve ga, another said. Ah! Has he started again? in sarcasm of Bem who everyone teased for having too many words in his mouth, and for his age.

It’s the way of history. Man dominates fellow man, Janala said.

By using fear, a woman, one of the schoolteachers, said.

But by killing Fulanis, are we not killing Nigerians, Bem asked.

We are not killing anyone. We are defending ourselves, Janala said.

You know, there’s a story about these repeated attacks, Bem said.

The Usman dan Fodio one, you mean, someone asked.

Yes, Bem said. They say the Fulanis never forgive nor forget; that they are trying to finish what Usman dan Fodio started when our ancestors stopped him. To penetrate Benue and continue his jihad to the south . . .

No one spoke for a while, and everyone seemed to be waiting for the person with the next wise thing to say. In the silence, the Retired General Tarfa Orakaa, somehow, uncannily, recited to us, from memory, a poem about a man who stopped in a forest in the evening with his horse as snow fell. The bonfire shone and burnt rebelliously as if with a secret.

This is how more of the story was told to me:

In the morning of the third day, one of the Squadron boys at the surveillance post began speaking into his radio: This is Squadron Team Begha. Do you hear me? Over.

Bem said he pressed a button and the transmission connected to the General over a radio. “This is Squadron Team Leader. I read you, Begha. Report,” Janala had answered.

Now, I want to tell you this: once upon a time here, in Jato-Aka, nomads arrived with their butchering implements. And after they were scared off, they still returned. It was after one of the Squadron boys at the surveillance post narrated the events of that day to me that I decided to join the Boundary Squadron. They had reported to Janala what they saw from afar: Figures in the distance. Counting thirty. Profile matches expected assailants. Men with swords. Nomads.



Carl Terver is the author of For Girl at Rubicon. His work has appeared in The Republic, Olongo Africa, Iskanchi, The Question Marker, Millennial Poets, and in Afapinen, where he is the founding editor. He is the Digital Editions Editor at Konya Shamsrumi. He lives in Makurdi and Abuja, and his forthcoming short story collection is The Talking Fridge.

Rolling Stones, essay by Brigita Orel

Stones will trick you into believing that they’re immovable and lifeless. You look at a rocky mountain and think: that has stood there for aeons. Pebbles have been sunbathing on a beach for centuries and rocks have remained strong as a foundation of your house for decades. It’s humans who are restless and fickle and move around from one corner of the Earth to another or from a village to a town. We get bored, we change jobs, fall in love with a foreigner, or seek an adventure. We move; stones remain. Scandinavian languages even have an expression that illustrates how inert we perceive stones to be: att sova som en sten – to sleep like a stone, dead to the world.

I’ve wondered sometimes if stones get bored, too, of the same spot in the shade or of being licked by a cold stream day in and day out. I’ve wondered if they don’t call out to us to move them. Because they do move. They travel from place to place, across borders, downstream, in rucksacks and dirty pockets of children’s overalls. And they call to us in mysterious ways. Their presence in our lives may be quiet and unobtrusive but it’s persistent and tangible. Think of the mysterious polished stone balls found in burial sites around Britain from more than 5,000 years ago. Although their purpose is unclear, the amount of work invested in polishing and carving these balls hints at their importance.

Stones are important to me too. Every time I visit my hometown, I bring back stones from the riverbank. I collect them because they’re black or perfectly round, have a hole which makes them ideal as a pendant or are shaped peculiarly. But the truth is, I collect them because I miss the river and my hometown, because of the memories that become more and more intangible as I age. So, I replace them with colourful pebbles and driftwood as if I could drift back in time to a place that no longer exists and where the only thing that remains the same are the stones that form the riverbank.

On another riverbank, my heart was broken many years ago. Shattered. I’m still picking up the shards, filling my pockets with glacial-white pebbles. The pieces of the heart don’t fit any longer, but better to hold a handful of memories than nothing at all. The stones’ cool, smooth surfaces soothe the ache that is still too sharp to be mere reminiscence. Perhaps he had a heart of stone just like this one I think as I pick up another one – grey, heart-shaped, and cold.

I have a box of stones on my shelves. When I feel lost or in need of encouragement or direction, I stack them into piles or lay them out into patterns. Sometimes they inspire me, sometimes they don’t. It probably depends on my mood, but what if it depends on the stones and their willingness to cooperate? We don’t know anymore how to listen to them. We ignore anything that’s not loud and in our faces. As a species, we’ve lost touch with our foundation. My house doesn’t have one either but it’s built of stone and it’s stood the test of time for over a century. I like the thick walls, the fortress-like feel to them. It makes phone reception terrible and I’m sometimes unavailable as a result. Occasionally, it’s important to be unavailable for other people’s demands. The stone walls protect me, sometimes even from myself.

When I finished my PhD, I had a piece of black local rock polished and inscribed with a dedication for my supervisor. I packed it in my suitcase and carried it on a plane, a train, a bus and lastly in a taxi to give it to her. It was the longest voyage I facilitated for a stone (so far). I don’t know if she agrees, but stones can be a precious, almost sacred gift. They will outlast the giver and the recipient just like genuine gratitude outlasts the act of giving a gift in its name. Perhaps to her, it was just a useful paperweight or not even that.

I pass downward-headed rocks when I go mountain climbing. Recently, I picked one up and took it home to give to my mum who will transform it into a fairy house for her garden. The piece of limestone was an almost perfect rectangular solid as it has been compressed in layers for about 65 million years until it chipped off the main vein. After all this time, it has made its way down to the bottom of the valley with a little help from me.

I marvel at the stones’ patience as they move and roll and fall in small increments over decades and centuries. They take their time travelling and have no goal envisioned for themselves. The epitome of the saying Life is a journey, not a destination. I try to emulate them, and as I grow older, I am more and more successful at it. The ultimate destination no longer appeals to me as I become increasingly more aware of what it is. There’s an end to everything, even to rocks and stones as they slowly dissolve in water or are ground into dust on land. They just take more time to reach their end compared to us. Rocks and we are more alike than we think. But they are more secretive about their lives and so we’ve been lulled into thinking that they’re irrelevant.

Like many things in life, our link to stones comes full circle at some point. A stone slab will mark my resting spot eventually. My name will be inscribed on its polished surface. After a lifetime of rocks leaving a mark on me, I will leave a mark on a stone.



Brigita Orel has published short stories and essays in LitroTwo-Thirds North and Cinnamon Press anthologies. Her picture book The Pirate Tree (Lantana Publishing, 2019) was shortlisted for the Derby Children’s Picture Book Award. She lives in Slovenia where she works as a literary translator.

Two poems by George Freek


(After Tu Fu)

Clouds stretch from the sky

to the lake, as if they would

swallow it. Gulls circle,

then drift away.

A chill in the air says

another summer has gone.

I look in a mirror.

I look old. It seems wrong.

I watch a girl walk

through the falling leaves.

She gazes at a darkening sky.

Is she thinking of the clouds,

or the heavens beyond?

Whichever it is,

her attention is on the sky,

and in a few seconds

she’s passed me by.




(After Mei Yao Chen)

This night is bitter.

I sit alone in my room.

I rub my heavy eyelids.

I turn the pages of a book,

and try to read,

but quit after a brief look.

As the hours slowly pass,

moonlight drifts in,

collecting as dust would

on an hourglass.

When I sleep,

I dream of my youth,

what I hoped to achieve,

but never began.

At least my wife is dead.

Her dreams are done.

She had faith in me.

She didn’t live to see

what I’ve become.



George Freek’s poem “Written At Blue Lake” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His poem “Enigmatic Variations” was also recently nominated for Best of the Net. His collection “Melancholia” is published by Red Wolf Editions.

Two poems by Emma Kuli

uniform red


my maid of honor told me everything:

the winchester in your waistband,


the red paint

on your penny timeline


the reason you won’t fix

your Ford’s mirror cracks


she didn’t know I’ve always known


it’s just cause you’re a taxpayer

and you fall asleep to cable news



have you ever slept with a phlebologist?


they’re all the same!

they trace your veins

ask distracting questions

while drawing blood.



Emma Kuli is a poet and screenwriter from Villa Park, California. She is a California Young Playwright, a Handlery Prize winner, a Center for the Arts and Humanities Fellow, and a Canterbury Scholar. Her writing has been published in Inkblot, the Owl, and Life Without Borders and produced through Playwright’s Project and the New Play Festival.